A bevy of brewers will soon descend on St. Petersburg, Florida, coalescing for the Foeder for Thought Festival on Friday. Comprising folks from Jester King Brewery, Almanac Brewing Co., Fonta Flora Brewery, and the host brewery, Green Bench Brewing Co., this brain trust will be educating consumers on the giant oaken fermentation vessels known as foeders, as well as the wild, farmhouse and sour beer styles typically made in them.
Khris Johnson, Green Bench’s head brewer, started the festival three years ago to educate customers. When Green Bench began, Johnson found that many consumers didn’t exactly understand what he was selling in foeder beers.
Now, he said, foeders are becoming familiar. “I also think there’s a lot more breweries getting involved with them,” he added.
That doesn’t mean foeders are ubiquitous, however. In fact, many brewers struggle to wrestle one from a constricted supply.
“No one could locate foeders,” said Matt Walters, co-founder and owner of Foeder Crafters of America. “We just decided that it was time someone started a foeder business specifically for the wild and sour people.”
A little over a year ago, with the wild and sour beer craze was on the rise, Walters and his business partner Justin Saffell founded their foeder building enterprise after stints in violin building and the brewing industry. It was the first of its kind in the United States.
Like sours and wild beers, foeders came to America from Europe. Primarily built in France and Italy, the gargantuan barrels are ideal vessels for fermenting and aging large volumes of liquids. Standard wine barrels can only hold 225-300 liters worth of liquid at a time, but Foeder Crafters of America’s most popular foeder—a 30-barrel version—holds around 3,500.
“Building a foeder is a lot harder than building a cello or violin. A lot of people would think the opposite, but I’ve never had to build a cello that had to hold water,” said Walters.
On top of surmounting that obstacle of leakage, Walters and Saffell also had to figure out how to remove overbearing flavors and tannins from fresh oak. The process they developed requires days—sometimes weeks—of high temperature steaming to remove undesired flavors from the wood, a process applied according to brewers’ specifics.
“The first day it’s all tannins, the second day all bourbon, the third day all oak, then vanilla, then coconut, and then it becomes neutral,” said Walters. Many American brewers get their foeders used from winemakers, who buy foeders new because they want the oakiness and tannins, then sell their barrels once they become too mellowed from use.
Wicked Weed Brewing bought its first 75 barrel foeder from a vineyard in California, but after running into extensive difficulties, turned to Nadalié cooperage in France to build it several more. The brewery uses the foeders to produce a series of tart farmhouse ales, including Bombadile, a Belgian table ale aged with Brettanomyces and strawberries, and La Bonte, a tart farmhouse ale that has been brewed with figs, pears and plums.
“I don’t want to fight to find foeders,” said Walt Dickinson, founder and brewer at Wicked Weed. “If I can make these [new] foeders work, I don’t anticipate looking for used foeders any more. I’ll just have them made.”
Dickinson went with the French cooperage because he prefers the mild flavors of French oak and the safety of 100-plus years of experience. However, a 30-barrel foeder from Foeder Crafters of America costs $9,800, a price that Walters says is far below the cost of imported ones. Dickinson said he would have saved 20 percent, not including steep shipping costs, if he would have opted for the American company’s foeders.
“I’ve heard good things about Foeder Crafters, but for me, I wanted to wait it out a little while and see how things developed,” said Dickinson.
Dickinson’s nascent program pales in comparison to the foeder program at New Belgium Brewing Co., which has 64 foeders. The vanguard program at Rodenbach Brewery in Belgium, which consists of 294 foeders, boasts that it is the largest in the world. And many other breweries are working to acquire the vessels.
Following its first year of business, Foeder Crafters of America has built around 70 foeders for companies such as Perennial Artisan Ales, Ballast Point Brewing Co., Casa Agria Specialty Ales, Trillium Brewing Co. and Side Project Brewing, and is hiring more workers to keep up with high demand.
“This market is huge, sometimes it’s mind-blowing,” said Walters.
Seguin Moreau’s cooperage in Cognac, France, makes new foeders for vintners in Europe far more than it does for brewers (it has only sold one new foeder to a brewer). But when vintners get new foeders, they often return the old ones to Seguin Moreau to resell to brewers, including U.S. ones like New Belgium.
“For the most part, the breweries haven’t been interested in the new ones, only used ones,” said Chris Hansen, a general manager for Seguin Moreau.
“We only have so many used ones that we get each year, and it’s different any year,” he continued. “One year it might be six, one year it might be 12, but we’re able to sell all the ones we get.”
Demand, he said, far outstrips supply.
For brewers that are looking to get their hands on a used foeder, it helps to be friends with wineries and barrel brokers.
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s separate barrel-aging, wild beer and sours program, Barrelworks has 10 foeders of varying size on top of over 1,000 smaller barrels. Though that specific program is recent, Firestone has been barrel aging since 1996.
“Being ahead of the curve has allowed us the time make some concrete relationships with friends in wine business and barrel brokers who get the inside scoop,” said Jim Crooks, the master blender at Barrelworks. “It pays to be higher up on the call sheet these days.”
Bo McMillan is a writer and self-professed nerd based out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, whose interests include food history, coffee, contemporary literature and cooking.